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ClassicsOnline Home » PROKOFIEV: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 5
"The degree of spontaneity and rapport between soloist, conductor and orchestra is reminiscent of the finest live performances"
By Rick Phillips
Prokofiev (1891 - 1953)
Concerto No.2 in G Minor, Op. 16
Concerto No.5 in G Major, Op. 55
Prokofiev was born in 1891 at Sontsovka in the Ukraine, the son of a prosperous estate
manager. An only child, his musical talents were fostered by his mother, a cultured
amateur pianist, and he tried his hand at composition at the age of five, later being
tutored at home by the composer Glière. In 1904, on the advice of Glazunov, his parents
allowed him to enter the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he continued his studies as a
pianist and as a composer until 1914, owing more to the influence of senior
fellow-students Asafyev and Myaskovsky than to the older generation of teachers,
represented by Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov.
Even as a
student Prokofiev had begun to make his mark as a composer, arousing enthusiasm and
hostility in equal measure, and inducing Glazunov, now director of the Conservatory, to
walk out of a performance of The Scythian Suite,
fearing for his sense of hearing. During the war he gained exemption from military service
by enrolling as an organ student and after the Revolution was given permission to travel
abroad, at first to America, taking with him the scores of The Scythian Suite, arranged from a ballet originally
commissioned by Dyagilev, the Classical Symphony
and his first Violin Concerto.
Stravinsky and Rachmaninov, Prokofiev had left Russia with official permission and with
the idea of returning home sooner or later. His stay in the United States of America was
at first successful. He appeared as a solo pianist and wrote the opera The Love for Three Oranges for the Chicago Opera. By
1920, however, he had begun to find life more difficult and moved to Paris, where he
re-established contact with Dyagilev, for whom he revised The Tale of the Buffoon, a ballet successfully
mounted in 1921. He spent much of the next sixteen years in France, returning from time to
time to Russia, where his music was still acceptable.
Prokofiev decided to settle once more in his native country, taking up residence in Moscow
in time for the first official onslaught on music that did not sort weIl with the
political and social aims of the government, aimed in particular at the hitherto
successful opera A Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District
by Shostakovich. Twelve years later the name of Prokofiev was to be openly joined with
that of Shostakovich in an even more explicit condemnation of formalism, with particular
reference now to Prokofiev's opera War and Peace.
He died in 1953 on the same day as Joseph Stalin, and thus never benefited from the
subsequent relaxation in official policy to the arts.
composer Prokofiev was prolific. His operas include the remarkable Fiery Angel, first performed in its entirety in Paris
the year after his death, with ballet-scores in Russia for Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella. The last of his seven symphonies was
completed in 1952, the year of his unfinished sixth piano concerto. His piano sonatas form
an important addition to the repertoire, in addition to his songs and chamber music,
film-scores and much else, some works overtly serving the purposes of the state. In style
his music is often astringent in harmony, but with a characteristically Russian turn of
melody and, whatever Shostakovich may have thought of it, a certain idiosyncratic gift for
orchestration that gives his instrumental music a particular piquancy.
completed his second piano concerto in 1913,
dedicating it to his Conservatory friend Max Shmitgov, who had committed suicide in April,
shooting himself in a forest in Finland, after writing a farewell letter to his friend
Prokofiev. Learning the solo part was hard work and he spent part of summer in
preparation, while accompanying his mother on a tour of Western Europe that took them to
Paris, to London and then to a spa in the Auvergne, before a brief holiday near the Black
Sea. On 23rd August he played the concerto for the first time in a concert at Pavlovsk,
provoking a very divided response of outrage and horror from some and ecstatic approval
from the more progressive.
orchestral score of the Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Opus
16, was destroyed in a fire, during Prokofiev's absence from Russia after 1918,
and was rewritten in 1923. In Paris in the summer of 1914 Dyagilev showed interest in what
seemed the work of another of the fauves and suggested using the music for a ballet,
eventually commissioning a work on a primitive pagan libretto, Ala and Lolly, which, when it was rejected, became
the Scythian Suite, music that Glazunov
found even more distressing. In compensation for rejection of Ala and Lolly, Dyagilev arranged a concert appearance
for Prokofiev in Rome in 1915, when he played the concerto
to the expected mixed response. Dyagilev now offered a more congenial commission for The Buffoon (Chout), a ballet eventually staged in
Paris in 1921.
The concerto is in four movements and opens with a
lyrical Andantino and textures, at least,
that suggest the chromaticism and piano-writing of Rachmaninov. The second movement is a Scherzo, in the key of D minor, music that offers a
technical challenge to the soloist in its busy octaves. The original key of G minor is
restored in the third movement> Intermezzo, a
march in ironic mood rather than the more lyrical movement suggested by the title. The
virtuoso finale recalls in its first subject the first movement, leading to a second
subject of obviously Russian character. There is an extended cadenza before the orchestra
returns with the principal theme.
two later piano concertos completed by Prokofiev, the first, the Piano Concerto No.4, in B fIat major, for the left
hand, completed in 1931, was commissioned by the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who
refused to play the work. The Piano Concerto No.5,
Opus 55, was completed in the summer of 1932 at Ste. Maxime on the French
Mediterranean coast. Prokofiev had originally intended to avoid the title concerto,
calling the work simply Music for Piano and Orchestra,
but was dissuaded by Myaskovsky, with whom he remained in touch, to avoid this. The concerto was given its first performance in Berlin.
Prokofiev was, as usual, the soloist, and the orchestra the Berlin Philharmonic, under
Wilhelm Furtwängler. The work was well received, although Prokofiev himself later had
doubts about it. It came at a period when the progressive musical demands of Paris sorted
ill with his own search for clarity and simplicity, and for an inspiration that he felt
could only be found in Russia.
The Fifth Piano Concerto is in five movements. The first
of these, marked Allegro con brio, has a
characteristic wide-spread opening theme, later contrasted with material that has its own
peculiar harmonic twist. The strongly rhythmical second movement leads to a third, a
toccata, that allows the motor impetus that is often a feature of Prokofievs music
to predominate. There is a slow movement before the soloist introduces the final Vivo with an angular theme to which the piano later
provides a contrast, in a movement that by and large lacks compelling melodic interest.
The Korean pianist Kun Woo Paik studied at the Juilliard School in New York, in London and
in Italy, and now lives in Paris, where he has established himself as a pianist of rare
virtuosity and breadth of vision. He is particularly well known for his interpretation of
the piano music of Ravel and of Liszt, the second demonstrated in 1982 in an acclaimed
series of six recitals, in Paris repeated with similar success at the Wigmore Hall in
London two years later. Kun Woo Paik has appeared in recitals and as a soloist with major
orchestras throughout Europe and North America. In 1991 he performed in Poland the five
piano concertos of Prokofiev with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and
recorded them immediately following the concerts. He has also recorded the complete piano
music of Ravel, including the two concertos, and the complete piano music of Mussorgsky.
National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Katowice (PNRSO)
Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra of Katowice (PRNSO) was founded in 1945, soon
after the end of the World War II, by the eminent Polish conductor Witold Rowicki. The
PRNSO replaced the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra which had existed from 1934 to 1939 in
Warsaw, under the direction of another outstanding artist, Grzegorz Fitelberg. In 1947
Grzegroz Fitelberg returned to Poland and became artistic director of the PRNSO. He was
followed by a series of distinguished Polish conductors - Jan Krenz. Bohdan Wodiezko,
Kazimierz Kord, Tadeusz Strugala, Jerzy Maksymiuk, Stanislaw Wislocki and, since 1983,
Antoni Wit. The orchestra has appeared with conductors and soloists of the greatest
distinction and has recorded for Polskie Nagrania and many international record labels.
Wit was born in Cracow in 1944 and studied there, before becoming assistant to Witold
Rowicki with the National Philharmonic Orchestra in Warsaw in 1967. He studied with Nadia
Boulanger in Paris and with Penderecki and in 1971 was a prize-winner in the Herbert von
Karajan Competition. Study at Tanglewood with Skrowaczewski and Seiji Ozawa was followed
by appointment as Principal Conductor first of the Pomeranian Philharmonic and then of the
Cracow Radio Symphony Orchestra. In 1983 he took up the position of Artistic Director and
Principal Conductor of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice. Antoni
Wit has undertaken many engagements abroad with major orchestras, ranging from the Berlin
Philharmonic and the BBC Welsh and Scottish Symphony Orchestras to the Kusatsu Festival
Orchestra in Japan.
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PROKOFIEV: Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 5